Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Graham Freudenberg (1934–2019)

by Tony Stephens

As a child, Graham Freudenberg day-dreamed of being a politician, perhaps a political leader. When his parents were out, he would recite the speeches of Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish statesman, author, orator, political philosopher and member of the House of Commons.

He gave up such notions on realising how hard good politicians worked and accepting that he lacked the necessary energy and nature. Instead, he became a speechwriter for Labor Party leaders. Writing over 50 years for Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran, Bob Hawke, Barrie Unsworth and Bob Carr, he led the craft of speechwriting and contributed more to his party than did most MPs.

Freudenberg thought of himself as “not just a speechwriter” but midwife at the birth of some great speeches, a political advisor, “the bloke who was there” when history was made.

Norman Graham Freudenberg was born in Brisbane on May 12, 1934, the youngest of three children. His grandparents were Prussian-born. His father, Norman, was a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli, successful commercial traveller, conservative voter and RSL office holder. His mother, formerly Irene Varion Wilson, was a staunch Presbyterian of Scottish descent.

Graham went to Coorparoo primary school and Church of England Grammar. Bedridden with chicken pox at 10, he read Andre Maurois’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli, the English writer who became prime minister. The boy decided there and then to make writing and politics his life. His first speech, just before his eleventh birthday, celebrated VE Day. His mother was his audience.

Graham performed in playlets for ABC school radio programs, once as David Copperfield. This introduced him to a sophisticated adult world and an appreciation of English written to be spoken. Soon he was reading Shakespeare and Shaw. Winston Churchill’s words took him to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Macaulay’s History of England.

He became a journalist with the Brisbane Telegraph in 1952 and worked on newspapers in Sydney, Mildura and Melbourne before arriving in London in 1956, when he read and listened to Bertrand Russell and was captivated by Aneurin Bevan’s denunciation of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. Back home in 1957, he joined the Labor Party and Channel 9 in Melbourne.

By 1960 he was press secretary with Calwell, federal opposition leader. He developed the speechwriting role, he said, to justify his existence and, in 1965, wrote one of Australia’s great political speeches. The Vietnam war was still popular in the United States and Australia. It was almost inconceivable that the US would be humiliated. But Calwell denounced the war and forecast humiliation. History rewarded the speech, voters didn't. Labor was thrashed in the 1966 election.

A majority of Australians saw Calwell as a failure but Freudenberg pointed to the speech and the fact that the opposition leader changed Labor’s attitude to non-British migrants, “the greatest single change for good in Australian society in our time”.

Joining Whitlam in 1966, Freudenberg was swept up by the power of the leader’s mind and new ideas. “Whitlam’s personality was so dominant that I was only a vessel into which he poured his political thoughts.” Whitlam’s approach was intellectual and moved by reason; Freudenberg’s was instinctive and emotional.

While Whitlam kept reasonably normal hours, Freudenberg worked very late, often playing Beethoven very loud; he moved from Canberra lodgings after neighbours complained about the very early morning Beethoven. He might arrive at the office around 11am with a green apple for breakfast. While Whitlam drank little, Freudenberg drank lots. For many years Who's Who listed his recreations as “reading, drinking and smoking”, although he later dropped “drinking”.

Yet the two men’s thoughts coalesced. Whitlam’s speech patterns even became Freudenberg’s. Calwell’s anti-Vietnam War speech had drawn on research by Whitlam back to 1954. The “It’s Time” policy speech of 1972 was being written from 1967.

He loved books and musical grandeur. His heroes were in his little home in Woollahra — busts of Voltaire, Shakespeare, Mozart, Lincoln, Beethoven. Yet Whitlam influenced him most of all.

Several speeches for Wran are also seen as masterpieces, especially that for the 1976 campaign which saw Wran lead Labor back to power in NSW, six months after Whitlam’s crash. Wran provided a new style of leadership and the two men became mates. “You have to live in their pockets,” Freudenberg said of the relationship between leader and writer.

He said major speeches were team efforts involving advisors and staff. This was more evident with Hawke, who was more likely to go off script. Freudenberg said before the 1987 election policy speech: “If I drop dead, which is quite likely given my lifestyle, there will be a speech.”

A collection of Hawke’s speeches in 1984 were all written by Freudenberg, as was Wran’s introduction. Hawke thought Freudenberg understood the nature and essence of the Labor Party and the challenge in remaining committed to core values while adapting to change.

Freudenberg worked with Carr as premier, later foreign minister. Between times he had moved to Bribie Island, Queensland, and concentrated on books. His 1977 memoir on the Whitlam years, A Certain Grandeur, is perhaps the most elegantly written book on Australian politics. He also wrote Cause for Power, the official history of the ALP in NSW, and The Curtin and Chifley Years.

His one attempt to become a politician came in 1991, when he put himself forward for Labor’s ticket in the Legislative Council election. Sussex St headquarters preferred Eddie Obeid. Changing pace, Freudenberg drafted most of the speeches for the Australian delegation to the International Olympic Federation in 1993, which saw the 2000 Games go to Sydney.

He wanted his 2005 memoir, A Figure of Speech, to be an antidote against despair. Although he thought Labor more a state of mind than a set of policies, Whitlam had showed that policies were at the core of the political process – “and a sense of purpose and direction even when things were grim and quite awful, as they generally were”. Churchill and Australia 1900-1965 won the Walkley book award in 2009.

Freudenberg thought the great political speech was not dead in the 21st century, just struggling to be heard above the 20-second grab. Parliament could still be the greatest forum; any decline in debate was because parliament was not exploited properly. Yet he defended today's politicians as “better educated and more professional”.

He also defended plagiarism: “Any speechwriter worth his salt will plagiarise the great.” He loved rhetoric but saw his work as craft rather than art, insisting on accuracy and the primacy of content over rhetoric. He knew that the Gettysburg Address was only 268 words but they distilled years of work by Lincoln, revealing “a relentless flow of logic”.

Freudenberg was a member in the Order of Australia and a life member of the Labor Party. He was awarded a Centenary Medal.

Graham Freudenberg’s 1965 marriage to Maureen Dwyer broke after eight years — he blamed himself. He is survived by his long-time companion, Tom Kusano, and his brother Rex and his family. His sister, Ailsa, predeceased him.

Original publication

View the list of ADB articles written by Graham Freudenberg

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Freudenberg, Graham (1934–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 May, 1934
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


26 July, 2019 (aged 85)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism